“Leader for all sea­sons” seeks a cul­ture change

Wil­son left job as col­lege pres­i­dent to man­age ser­vice’s $132B bud­get

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Dan Lamothe

WASH­ING­TON» New Air Force Sec­re­tary Heather Wil­son stood in front of a room of air­men in the Pen­tagon re­cently and pre­sented an un­con­ven­tional pro­posal. What, she asked, if she elim­i­nated ev­ery one of the Air Force’s reg­u­la­tions and re­quired ser­vice mem­bers to ask for the ones they need back?

Wil­son paused for a mo­ment, and dozens of air­men in the room laughed. It was a “bad idea,” she ac­knowl­edged, but then she pressed her point. The Air Force has too much bu­reau­cracy, too many reg­u­la­tions and too many peo­ple stuck do­ing busy work, she said, as sev­eral se­nior of­fi­cers sat lis­ten­ing.

“Now, we all still want to drive on the right side of the street and so on. But some of these things are not only not writ­ten in the English lan­guage, but if some­thing goes wrong we’re go­ing to say, ‘Oh, you didn’t fol­low Air Force in­struc­tion 210-dash-2.1, sub­para­graph X, and we’re go­ing to hold you ac­count­able,’ ” she said. “It’s like, are you kid­ding me? And you know, there’s a whole book­shelf of these.”

Wil­son con­cluded: “Let’s not try to tell them how to do ev­ery­thing. Let’s tell them what to do and let them sur­prise us with their in­ge­nu­ity.”

Wil­son’s ap­proach — folksy at times, but with a back­ground as a Rhodes Scholar — is a shift in a ser­vice that has 660,000 air­men and a $132 bil­lion bud­get but is strug­gling to keep up with its de­mands. While the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has promised to bol­ster the mil­i­tary, the Air Force is coping with an aging fleet of jets that has been used heav­ily in the air war against the Is­lamic State. Se­nior ser­vice of­fi­cials point to a cri­sis-level short­age in fighter pi­lots.

Wil­son has said re­peat­edly the Air Force is “too small for what the na­tion ex­pects of it” and has ad­vo­cated adding air­craft and peo­ple. She has called for the ser­vice to do more to take un­due bu­reau­cratic and train­ing re­quire­ments off air­men. Crit­ics say the bu­reau­cracy has driven many Air Force pi­lots out of the mil­i­tary and into more lu­cra­tive com­mer­cial avi­a­tion.

When Wil­son touches on those points, she is fond of men­tion­ing the ser­vice of her Scot­tish grand­fa­ther, Ge­orge “Scotty” Wil­son, who flew planes for the Bri­tish Royal Fly­ing Corps in World War I and the U.S. Army Air Corps in World War II. He and his wife, An­nie, played an in­te­gral role in her life, es­pe­cially af­ter a car ac­ci­dent changed her fam­ily for­ever.

“My fa­ther was ac­tu­ally killed when I was 6 years old, and my mother re­mar­ried to some­one who had his own set of prob­lems with al­co­holism,” Wil­son said in an in­ter­view. “I didn’t much like that, and so at 17 years old, I left. My life arched to­ward my fa­ther’s fam­ily, and my grand­par­ents were still alive and very much in­volved in my life.”

Wil­son, a na­tive of Keene, N.H., was re­cruited for the job by De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis from the South Dakota School of Mines and Tech­nol­ogy, a sci­ence and en­gi­neer­ing univer­sity where she served as pres­i­dent since 2013. She and Mat­tis did not know each other well, but she ap­pealed to him be­cause her ex­pe­ri­ence was widerang­ing and in­cluded time as a for­mer con­gress­woman in New Mex­ico, he said.

“Heather Wil­son is a leader for all sea­sons,” Mat­tis said in a state­ment. “She dis­tin­guished her­self as an ac­tive-duty Air Force of­fi­cer and as the pres­i­dent of a univer­sity. Her ex­pe­ri­ence in Congress and the pri­vate sec­tor made her the ideal choice to lead the Air Force.”

Wil­son, 56, could have gone to the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy, she said. But af­ter spend­ing her child­hood hear­ing avi­a­tion sto­ries from her grand­fa­ther and fa­ther, a com­mer­cial pilot and for­mer air­man who flew out of Bos­ton, she sought her grand­fa­ther’s bless­ing to join one of the first Air Force Academy classes to al­low women.

Wil­son grad­u­ated in 1982 from the Air Force Academy, where she was class­mates with Gen. David L. Gold­fein, now the Air Force’s top of­fi­cer. She was faced with a di-

lemma there: She had se­cured a slot in flight school but was sur­prised to learn she also had been ac­cepted as a Rhodes Scholar. She strongly de­bated de­clin­ing the schol­ar­ship be­fore oth­ers con­vinced her that it would open new doors in her life, she said.

Wil­son con­sid­ered pur­su­ing a ca­reer as a pilot again af­ter earn­ing a doc­toral de­gree at Ox­ford Univer­sity but said she de­cided against it in part be­cause of a pro­hi­bi­tion on women fly­ing com­bat air­craft that did not fall un­til 1993. In­stead, she worked as a plan­ning of­fi­cer at the head­quar­ters of the North At­lantic Treaty Or­ga­ni­za­tion and at the Pen­tagon.

“At that time, women were still not al­lowed to fly com­bat air­craft. And when I closed my eyes and I saw my­self fly­ing some­thing, it was some­thing small and fast, you know?” she said. “So I de­cided to use this ed­u­ca­tion to do some­thing dif­fer­ent.”

Wil­son, speak­ing aboard a mil­i­tary air­craft on June 26 as she re­turned to Wash­ing­ton from a day on Colorado mil­i­tary in­stal­la­tions with Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence, said Mat­tis first ap­proached her about the job with a phone call be­fore the Jan. 20 in­au­gu­ra­tion. She had mis­giv­ings about leav­ing “the best job in the world” as a univer­sity pres­i­dent and about mov­ing back to the East Coast af­ter many years in the Mid­west. But Mat­tis per­sisted with sev­eral more calls, she said.

“He told me, ‘You’re my first choice, and there’s big gap be­tween you and my sec­ond choice. And I’m not go­ing to talk to any­one else un­til you tell me whether you will do this if asked,’” he said. “It’s one of those mo­ments where you know your draft num­ber has come up, and you’re sup­posed to serve.”

Asked if she had any con­cerns about join­ing the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion given some of the pres­i­dent’s con­tro­ver­sial state­ments and ac­tions, she de­flected.

“To me, I work for Gen. Mat­tis and the United States Air Force, and I am here to serve the Air Force and or­ga­nize, train and equip the Air Force and make sure it sus­tains com­bat oper­a­tions in air and space,” she said.

Wil­son ac­knowl­edged that the con­fir­ma­tion process was dif­fi­cult at times and be­lieves it can “dis­cour­age good peo­ple from want­ing to serve.” In her case, her ethics were ques­tioned re­gard­ing work she did for San­dia Corp., a sub­sidiary of Lock­heed Martin that spe­cial­izes in nu­clear weapons, be­gin­ning days af­ter her term as a con­gress­woman ended in 2009. The En­ergy De­part­ment in­spec­tor gen­eral found the deal was “ir­reg­u­lar,” but that she did not break any laws. She ul­ti­mately was con­firmed by the Se­nate with a 76-22 vote.

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